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Book Review: Under the Table

(post, Megan Chromik)

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"Chefs love food. They love eating it, they love thinking about it. They love food in the way that regular people love their pets, or their spouses. Food is that constant companion that never disappoints. Food never starts an argument. Food never flirts with your best friend. Food never has an accident on your new rug. There are a lot of reasons to love food...." - Katherine Darling

I recently received a copy of Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School from Atria Books (Thank you, Esther!). In it, author Katherine Darling writes about her experience at the French Culinary Institute in NYC.

Darling divides the book into parts based on the four levels of culinary school. Each section is replete with anecdotes, lessons learned, and recipes.

From the moment I opened this book, I was hooked. The author sounded just like me! She's around my age, has a job in publishing, and constantly thinks and talks about food.

Unlike me, she decides to leave the safety of her desk job and go to culinary school.

Darling quickly learns that culinary school is not all fun or easy -- there are the daunting chef instructors to deal with and strange foods to prepare -- and this makes many of her experiences very humbling.

But don't worry, a great deal of the experience sounds incredibly wonderful too, and Darling shares some hilarious and inspiring stories as she makes new friends -- even with some of the rough-around-the-edges chef instructors -- and enemies and works her way up the culinary ranks.

She combines her personal stories with more general information about cooking (while it's not all cohesive throughout, the information is helpful).

This book truly appealed to me because I kept weighing our similarities as I read. This was one time I felt I could really connect with an author. Besides that she went to culinary school, and I did not, I felt that our lives paralleled in a lot of ways.

As I mentioned above, we both work in publishing, we're around the same age, and we share a passion for food. We also both live in cities and have competitive natures -- not too unusual -- but we've also both been run down by bicyclists. Tell me: How many people does that happen to? Luckily, I walked away with only a giant bruise on my thigh; Darling fares slightly worse.

We had the same issue with caramel. I tried to make it once as part of caramel frosting for a birthday cake, and I could not get it to work. I didn't realize until I read about Darling's experience that I simply lacked patience. I didn't expect to learn tips to improve my own cooking while reading this book -- I just thought I would get a glimpse of Darling's life and an in-depth look at culinary school.

The section on making choux pastry made me second guess my own attempts. I thought the first batch I ever made looked perfect, but as I read about Darling and her teammates making and remaking the puffs, I started to think mine couldn't have been quite as perfect as I originally thought. I remembered pulling a wooden spoon through my choux pastry dough to see if it was ready as I read about how they would swipe their fingers through the dough to check its doneness.

Upon graduating from culinary school, Darling takes a less traditional path than her classmates (most of whom find work in restaurant kitchens) -- and does exactly what I would do -- that or catering -- if I had the resources to go to culinary school. I'd tell you what that is, but I don't want to give away too much, so I'll let you find out for yourself. While some might be disappointed by Darling's choice to forgo becoming a restaurant chef, I was delighted -- because she did what I would do.

This book is great for anyone who enjoyed reading Julie and Julia and who wants a realistic, insider's view of what happens at a top culinary school. It's sort of a foodie version of The Devil Wears Prada as well -- instead of Anna Wintour, picture several burly, menacing chef instructors. I'm reminded a little of Jennifer Weiner's books too (e.g., In Her Shoes, Good in Bed). I suppose this book would fall under "foodie chick lit" if I had to categorize it.

Now, I'm off to decide which of Darling's fabulous recipes I need to add to my to-make list -- like her pâte brisée so I can make my own tarte aux pommes! And flourless chocolate cake.

Happy reading!

Pertinent Info
Title - Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School
Author - Katherine Darling
ISBN - 978-1-4165-6527-7
On sale - April 14, 2009
Publisher - Atria Books